"Weird" and "successful" don't often intersect when it comes to music. Record labels want to make money, and money doesn't come easy when you're trying to push the boundaries of rock or metal music. However, these gambles paid off big, pushing these cult acts to near-unimaginable levels of success.
System of a Down
System of a Down is undoubtedly the biggest weird band in metal history. After developing a cult following in their native Los Angeles with lyrics about kombucha mushroom people mixed with messages of mass genocide, SOAD released Toxicity in 2001 and went global. But like other acts who got big and mellowed out, System of a Down never stopped being weird… they still made songs about pizza pizza pies and violent pornography while getting banned from Saturday Night Live. 20 years later and it all still holds up.
In the ‘90s, Primus gave MTV viewers a type of weirdness reserved only for those brave enough to watch public access television at three in the morning. Can you imagine a major label releasing an album called Sailing the Seas of Cheese in 2023? Well, Interscope did it back in 1991… and guess what? It went platinum! Les Claypool and the boys went platinum again with 1993’s Pork Soda, proving that people will dig weird music if you just put it in front of their faces.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
Prog legend Frank Zappa and his band of necessities truly made some of the weirdest music in history. Zappa was one musician who truly never compromised, self-releasing the majority of his albums while being outwardly critical of the music industry. With The Mothers of Invention, Zappa would remain on the charts for decades with albums like Uncle Meat, Weasels Ripped My Flesh or Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. His style of comedy rock as never been replicated, maybe because no artist is patient enough to write a 25-minute opus like “Billy the Mountain.”
GWAR is another representation of the very best of MTV in the ‘90s. The legendary metal band of intergalactic scumdogs became just as notable for their stage performance as their hatred of humans, dousing fans in unholy penile fluids while decapitating notable political and social figures onstage. They defended “shock rock” with appearances on Jerry Springer and Joan Rivers, and were notably one of Beavis and Butt-Head’s favorite bands. There’s still nothing normal about GWAR four decades into their habitation of Earth. Hail Oderus.
Babymetal doesn’t sound terribly weird in 2023, but in 2013, the band of speed metal J-pop schoolgirls was too mind-boggling for many. Before Su-metal, Moametal and Yuimetal were even teenagers, Babymetal had fused together Idol music with power metal, death metal, hip-hop, EDM, reggae and plenty more, eventually culminating with their groundbreaking 2014 album. In a true example of “just crazy enough to work,” Babymetal became a worldwide phenomenon, selling out the gigantic Tokyo Dome while influencing countless genre-fluid artists.
Maynard James Keenan performing with fake tits or in full body paint isn’t even why Tool is included in this list. Tool’s weirdness comes mostly through the band’s complexity, and how the more complex their music became, the bigger they grew as a band. Few artists received mainstream airplay while playing in odd time signatures, releasing seven-minute songs as singles, or using Middle-eastern spirituality and sacred geometry as sonic foundations, but Tool were given the green light by MTV and radio stations regardless. One of the true prog/metal acts with a legitimate cult fan base, Tool will fill arenas until they choose to disband.
Unlistenable to many… irreplaceable to those who get it. When Death Grips go online, there’s no act in the world that sound like them. Having infiltrated the underground scene with a caustic blend of hardcore, industrial, hip-hop and electropunk, Death Grips were the cult group of the 2010s. Anchored by one of the best drummers to ever sit behind a kit, Death Grips tore through multiple genres with guttural screams and industrial filth, all while sitting on an unfuckwithable discography. All those rappers you heard screaming at the top of their lungs in the late 2010s… you can thank Death Grips for that.
The term “industrial music” came straight from Throbbing Gristle. As one of the weirdest sonic acts in history, like giving a computer riddled with viruses a lethal dose of ketamine, Throbbing Gristle birthed a litany of bands through their music — Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Rammstein, Godflesh, Fear Factory and countless others. Just about every act who uses computers to make music owes a debt to Throbbing Gristle, whose immeasurable success comes through their influence rather than zillions of album sales.
Many speak about Hawkwind as one of Lemmy Kilmister’s first bands, but few go into depth about just how bizarre the British band was. You wouldn’t know it from Hawkwind’s chart performances in the UK, as the group has over two dozen Top 100 albums spanning over 50 years. A pioneering space rock group, Hawkwind were like literal aliens in the flesh making alien music for psychonauts. Take us to the mothership, already.
There’s nothing Mike Patton can’t do, including turning a high school death metal project into a genreless band of bombastic brilliance. How the fuck do you classify Mr. Bungle? Are they funky jazz metal fusion? Avant-garde ska western? Thrashy soft-pop electro-tango? I cant…